Yankees general manager Brian Cashman says the club doesn't have much "heavy lifting" this offseason. However, there is one area he will likely address through free agency with a narrow scope.
When the Yankees received word from Masahiro Tanaka that he would not opt out of the final three years of his contract, Cashman's job became easier. As currently constituted the Yankees rotation is among the league's better groups No. 1 through No. 4. However, as good as the group of Tanaka, Sonny Gray, Jordan Montgomery and Luis Severino might be, the Yankees are short at least one starter for the 2018 season.
It's certainly an option to have an open fifth-starter competition with members of the farm system waiting to make the next step, however there are free agent options available to the Yankees.
With Tanaka sticking around, the Yankees will not get involved in the high-priced free agent market so cross Yu Darvish and Jake Arrieta off the list. While the Yankees could look at the next tier of pitchers - think Lance Lynn and Alex Cobb - the long-term commitment required for them with a farm system bursting with arms may not make sense.
In my view, the Yankees will not have to look far for their first target.
CC Sabathia is no longer flashy or overpowering, but he has figured out how to pitch effectively with a completely revamped repertoire. Sabathia has also lost the ability to pitch deep into games, but he was able to start 27 regular season games and another four in the postseason in 2017. In today's game, stepping on the hill every five days and pitching into the sixth inning is all that is needed from backend of the rotation starters. Sabathia fits that bill.
He pitched to a 3.69 ERA and 1.27 WHIP in his 148 2/3 regular season innings in 2017. Sabathia was 1-1 with a 2.37 ERA in 19 innings (four starts). He proved he can exist as a starter in the league and that he can manage the continuing knee issues with a specially made brace.
Sabathia, who turns 38 in July, expressed a desire to return to the Yankees after the season concluded. It is fair to suggest that the Yankees can offer him a one-year deal in the $12 million range, potentially with performance bonuses attached. Of interest is the chance that other teams may come forward with a willingness to offer Sabathia a two-year deal, or one with a vesting option of some sort for a second season. That's a risky proposition, but if it happens it could make the Yankees' decision more difficult. They may prefer to stick with one-year deals as they did with others as they moved through their late 30s.
The Yankees presumed interest in bringing back Sabathia will have no effect on their potential pursuit of Japan's two-way sensation Shohei Otani. Major League Baseball and Nippon Professional Baseball need to hash out an updated posting system before Otani will officially be available to the league's 30 teams. That said, Otani hired CAA to be his agency in the United States, which points to his feeling that an agreement is forthcoming.
MLB's revamped rules involving international players under the age of 25 and having less than six years of professional baseball in their country will allow clubs to basically handle Otani as if he is a stateside drafted player once he is signed. Otani can be sent to the minors and paid the league minimum if on an MLB squad (any initial lump sum payment will come via a signing bonus which is limited by a team's pool of international bonus funds). Should Otani, 23 with five years experience, wait a couple of more seasons, he would be treated much differently, in that he could command a $200 million-plus contract.
Otani's exceptional talent as a pitcher and a hitter is one that no team will pass up the opportunity to pursue. Further, as the Yankees are working to stay under the league's competitive balance tax, having Otani on the roster at the league minimum salary (with his signing bonus factored in) clearly becomes a huge benefit to the club.
The rub here is that if the Yankees sign both Sabathia and Otani, what happens to Montgomery and the Triple-A hurlers knocking on the MLB clubhouse doors?
There are some things to consider should this occur. Signing Otani does not necessarily mean he will start the season at the major league level. Since he can be brought through an organization as a minor leaguer, there is a chance that if he struggles early on in spring training that a club may give him a month or more in the minors to get acclimated to baseball in the States.
That, of course, would allow the Yankees to utilize Montgomery in the rotation should his performance be worthy of it. Remember, Montgomery is still learning the game as well, so there is no assurance he has a rotation slot locked down.
Further, pitching depth among starters is an extremely important aspect to an organization's ability to succeed in a 162-game season. Performance issues or health concerns often lead to the need for multiple starters as a season progresses. Having Montgomery or a Triple-A starter like Chance Adams ready to step in provides the Yankees with a distinct advantage over other teams.
The Yankees bringing back Sabathia is not a definite, but it is likely the starting point for them to fill their rotation void. Pursuit of Otani is assured if he is eventually posted, and any fallout concerned with having Sabathia and the underlying affects on the young pitchers waiting their turn, is essentially a circumstance the Yankees are willing to deal with.